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UMKC Faculty Awarded High-Priority Research Grants

Five University of Missouri-Kansas City faculty members have been chosen to participate in innovative, high-priority research projects funded with more than $20 million in investments from the UM System and its four universities.

System President Mun Choi, along with the four university chancellors and the system’s vice president for research and economic development, announced the series of investments Aug. 8, as the first stage of the system’s Excellence through Innovation research program.

Participating UMKC faculty members are Praveen Rao, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering; Zhu Li, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering; Viviana Grieco, Associate Professor of History & Latin American and Latinx Studies; Tony Luppino, Rubey M. Hulen Professor of Law; and Douglas Bowles, Professor of Economics.

The system-wide research investments support the UM System’s vision to advance opportunities for success and well-being for Missouri, the nation and the world through transformative teaching, research, innovation, engagement and inclusion. Choi has identified research as a key investment area along with areas such as affordability. Growing the research enterprise helps to attract research dollars, distinguished faculty members and students, many of whom engage in research as undergraduates.

“Within the UM System, we have an outstanding group of faculty members who are committed to research excellence,” Choi said. “It’s our job as academic leaders to provide them with the opportunities and resources to significantly grow research efforts that are bold and transformative, especially as it pertains to our highest priority, the NextGen Precision Health Initiative and Institute. These projects will be critical to catalyzing the collaboration and infrastructure investments that are needed to grow extramural funding for our universities.”

The invested funds will help train the next generation of leaders to meet workforce needs, create breakthrough discoveries to improve the human condition and convey the benefits of teaching and research to Missouri communities.

This year, there are 19 innovative research projects that will receive funding from the UM System and its four universities. The projects include research supporting the core instruments and infrastructure of the NextGen Precision Health Institute; research advancing the systemwide NextGen Precision Health Initiative; and research serving other key priorities of the System’s four universities.

The selection of the 19 projects was the result of a formal proposal process with more than 115 proposals submitted. These projects will be funded up to $20.5 million, with $11 million from UM System and the remaining funds from the four universities. These strategic investments will achieve excellence in research and provide meaningful economic and workforce development to Missouri and beyond.

The projects in which UMKC faculty are participating are listed below. The full list of 19 research projects is available online.

Establishment of the NextGen Data Analytics Center

Primary Investigators: Praveen Rao, UMKC; Prasad Calyam, MU

Co-PIs: Zhu Li, Viviana Grieco, UMKC; Peter Tonellato, Deepthi Rao, Prasad Calyam, MU; Sanjay Madria, Missouri S&T; Timothy Middelkoop, Kannappan Palaniappan, Satish Nair, Ye Duan, Trupti Joshi, MU

University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Praveen Rao and MU’s Prasad Calyam are leading a project to develop a hyper-converged computational hub that will be capable of analyzing and storing massive datasets to support the NextGen Precision Health Initiative as well as other collaborative research projects across the UM System. They are joined by Zhu Li and Viviana Grieco with UMKC; Peter Tonellato, Deepthi Rao, Timothy Middelkoop, Kannappan Palaniappan, Satish Nair, Ye Duan and Trupti Joshi with MU; and Missouri S&T’s Sanjay Madria. In the coming months, university leaders will coordinate with Rao and Calyam and other faculty colleagues to leverage this investment to develop the NextGen Data Analytics Center with donors and industry partners.

Building a Convergent Research Community for Smart City Center Procurement

PI: Bill Buttlar, MU

Co-PIs: Tony Luppino, UMKC; Bimal Balakrishnan, Tojan Rahhal, Enos Inniss, MU; Kamal Khayat, S&T

This project seeks to advance system-level efforts to build a convergent research community around the concept of Future Urban Infrastructure, Integrating Smart Materials and Architecture – as envisioned in a National Science Foundation initiative backed by more than $50 million in funding. The goal of this proposal is to build and strengthen UM System research teams that can successfully compete for funding in this major national initiative, as well as gain support from industry and other agencies.

Building Research Capacity for Geospatial-Enabled Data-Driven Discoveries (GED3)

PI: Chi-Ren Shyu, MU

Co-PIs: Douglas Bowles, UMKC; Eileen Avery, Grant Scott, Lincoln Sheets, Henry X. Wan, MU; Stephen S. Gao, S&T

Geospatial information, such as data used to map health disparities, crime density, environmental exposures and countless other datasets, is foundational to developing solutions to our greatest challenges. However, time and effort are often wasted reorganizing and reanalyzing the same public sources of information. This highly collaborative proposal aims to create innovative tools to efficiently organize geospatial resource data in a community-based repository for use across the UM System and beyond.

Big Opportunity for Big Learning

The NSF grant of $3 million to four universities over the next five years is designed to encourage innovative research in artificial intelligence and deep learning, and significant partnerships between university researchers and industry nationwide.

The initial phase incorporates NSF partnerships with four universities: University of Missouri-Kansas City, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Florida and University of Oregon. Each university will recruit at least three industry partners that are interested in big learning solutions who will match NSF funding. The program could lead to a potential investment of $1.5 million in UMKC alone.

The UMKC team is led by Zhu Li (director), and Yugyung Lee (co-director) with active participations from faculty members including Sejun Song, Praveen Rao, Reza Derakhshani, Shui-Qing Ye from the School of Computing and Engineering. The center will be supported by SCE faculty ZhiQuiang Chen, Baek-Young Choi, Chi Lee, Shui Ye and Yongjie Zheng and Peter Koulen, faculty researcher from the School of Medicine. They will collaborate with researchers from the other sites.

While private companies seem to have more access to capital for this type of research, it is more cost-effective for them to form university partnerships.

“It’s very exciting,” Lee says. “These companies don’t know what the product is yet. They want to find out what’s possible. We have the opportunity to take on some risky projects and develop prototypes, and they can take the solutions.”

Because individual workers with comparable education and experience can be very expensive for companies, especially for cutting-edge research, supporting university research can be incredibly cost-effective, especially with the structure of this project at UMKC.

“We’ll be creating a workforce prepared with top-tier knowledge of this sector right here in Kansas City,” says School of Computing and Engineering Dean Kevin Truman. “Through this industry partnership, faculty have the opportunity to develop some of the most exciting new technology solutions that will be going to market immediately. This isn’t just researching to know the answer, this is researching to create actual processes that will impact real people in real time.”

Each of the research projects, which will be located in the new Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise and Research Center expected to open in 2020, are focused on network management, deep learning, artificial intelligence, the web and the Internet of Things.

This technology will enable systems to analyze large data sets and develop new prediction models that allow for more sophisticated processing and voice and image recognition. In its current form, this is the technology that drives systems like Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. As the technology develops, it will enhance sophisticated applications such as heart monitoring implants.

“Our mission is to accelerate the innovation and impact to the real work,” Li says. “UMKC has its own unique strengths in embedded systems deep learning in imaging, compression, communication and fully embedded systems.”

The team has attracted five industry partners this year with which to collaborate: RIC Semiconductor, CloudMinds, Electronic Telecommunications Research Institute, SquareOffs and Tencent Media Lab. These companies, as well as the participating schools and their partners, will have access to all of the research generated by the consortium.

This is a key selling point when attracting partners.

“All the universities did a fantastic job of getting commitment letters from potential industry members and coming up with compelling projects for the full proposal submitted last year,” Rao says. “As result, the NSF panelists were impressed by the team and, ultimately, the Center for Big Learning was funded.”

“Our mission is to accelerate the innovation and impact to the real work,” Li says. “UMKC has its own unique strengths in embedded systems deep learning in imaging, compression, communication and fully embedded systems.”- Zhu Li

Derakhshani, who has experience in both academia and the private sector through his role in developing the technology that led to EyeVerify (now Zoloz), which was the largest technology transfer project in the university’s history, agrees.

“Industries coming to universities to solve their problems is a good model. This means that academics don’t create solutions that are looking for a problem,” he says. “In industry, you are always looking at your quarterly results. That’s what’s right about the partnership. Academia doesn’t have quarterly reports. We can focus on creating new and interesting knowledge. We fill the gap.”


To date, the UMKC site of the Center for Big Learning (CBL) has secured five research partners. The team will work with each company to develop artificial intelligence and big learning solutions for their specific challenges. The resulting technology will be shared with other CBL members.

RIC Semiconductor is a Dallas startup working on novel 77Ghz RF solutions for radar, imaging and communications. CloudMinds is developing mobile-internet cloud services, a platform to augment Cloud AI with human intelligence, secure private networks connecting robots and smart devices to Cloud AI and mobile devices as a robot control unit. CloudMinds is co-funded by the CEO of Softbank, the owner of Sprint. Electronic Telecommunications Research Institute is a Korean government-funded research center focused on core technologies in information, communications, electronics and broadcasting. SquareOffs is a micro debate platform designed to raise awareness, engagement and traffic for online publishers and brands. Tencent is a leading provider of internet value-added systems in China focused on social media platforms and digital content services.


Zhu Li, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Big Learning;
Associate professor, Department of Computer Science Electrical Engineering
Joined UMKC: 2015

Yugyung Lee, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Big Learning; Professor, Department of Computer Science Electrical Engineering
Joined UMKC: 1999

Reza Derakhshani, Ph.D.
Associate professor, Department of Computer Science Electrical Engineering
Joined UMKC: 2013

Praveen Rao, Ph.D.
Associate professor, Department of Computer Science Electrical Engineering
Joined UMKC: 2007

Sejun Song, Ph.D.
Associate professor, Department of Computer Science Electrical Engineering
Joined UMKC: 2013

This story originally appeared in Explore, the UMKC research magazine.